Yesterday morning I looked out on a winter’s day in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. My eyes absorbed the leaves, wet and drained of autumn pigment, clinging to skinny dark branches, refusing to fall. It was the kind of day that used to bring the lyrics of “California Dreamin’” to my lips when I was a freshman at Penn, far from my native habitat of Pacific Ocean sunsets. Yes, all the leaves are brown! Yes, the sky is gray! It’s all true! At eighteen years old, my future was unlimited. Every path was open.
Today, many significant reunions later, I’m “safe and warm in L.A.,” back to work, writing and lawyering and mom-ing.
It puts me in the same frame of mind as the couplet closing “The Summer Day” by poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It taunts me. Such pressure! Am I living up to it?
As though he is in cahoots, my ten-year-old son (who has lamented that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up) asks me, “Mom, do you love your job?” I consider, and answer: “I love writing…I like being a lawyer.” I tell myself that’s pretty good.
Do you know what you are called to do, are you are doing it?
Do you feel that you are glimpsing it, standing at the edge of the cliff and sensing that what you seek is out there, if only you had the courage to leap?
Are you close enough, happy enough, and don’t need to rock the boat?
I am not a leaper; I am a baby stepper. I cringe my way into the ocean and have inched my way for years into the writer’s life, combining it with the lawyer’s (if it’s good enough for Scott Turow, etc…). But one particular wisdom in Popova’s article is for all of us, leapers and baby-steppers alike: Let go of the false prize of prestige.
Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.
Prestige lurks and tempts: it is the esteemed career path, without the passion; the appointment to a high-falutin’ committee, without the interest. If the passion is not there, resist! Enlist the help of friends, if necessary. (I once asked my sister to shoot me if I applied to be a Law Review Editor. I knew I’d hate it, but I knew I was susceptible to its golden bauble, resume value.) I resisted on my own. No shots were fired.
What a way to enter the new year. Seek more of what moves you. Move closer to the joyful sound, the bracing splash, of your heart’s calling. Even if you have to inch your way toward it.